Cyberchondria: Anxiety from online searches about health

Turning to the Internet to find out what ails you is common, but for folks who have trouble handling uncertainty, “cyberchondria” – the online counterpart to hypochondria –results in debilitating anxiety that overcomes your thoughts.

Are you someone who hates uncertainty in life?  People that fear the unknown tend to have higher rates of cyberchondria than anyone else.  Like other anxiety disorders, women are more susceptible to men.  Everyone however can relate to the vicious cycle of searching online, self-diagnosing, convincing yourself of the diagnosis and seeking the prognosis online– and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities.

As a physician, the internet “medical degree” people seemingly obtain in a few hours necessitates a level of reassurance and education to simply reverse erroneous beliefs and tainted notions they gathered.  It leaves less time for discussion of the real problem and the legitimate treatment plan.  Especially since,  I cannot think of a single time anyone entered with an accurate diagnosis or treatment for themselves, online self-diagnosis causes much more harm than good.

The anxiety doesn’t stop at the fear of illness itself.  As if fearing a catastrophic disease or injury isn’t bad enough, doubts about health, unfounded or not, can trigger worries about potential medical bills, disability and job loss. And that can lead to even more online searching, obsessing, doctor visits, unnecessary medical testing and distress.   The addicting quality of the internet creates an impossible cycle of searching-fearing-anxiety-searching.

While fearing the worst when it comes to health is not new, the online glut of medical information – some of it from questionable sources – may be more disturbing than that contained in medical manuals or directly from the doctor themself.   I can attest to the erroneous information scattered like trash over the internet from unreliable sources which are easily available to public.  The problem is that compared to legitimate sources which are available only to physicians, these common public sites with no credibility facilitate further worries and fears.  Don’t believe everything you read on the internet applies here.

How do you prevent “cyberchondria” and appropriately deal with health concerns?  Whether its self-diagnosing  or reading about a new medication your starting,  you will get a tsunami of medical information but will be ill-equipped to understand it.  Write down a list of questions and make an appointment with your doctor which will save you from unnecessary anxiety which ironically itself can have a negative impact on your health condition if one actually exists.